“It Was Pornography”: Friedkin Closes the Book on the Missing 40 Minutes of “Cruising”

It would be difficult to describe William Friedkin as being in rare form last week when he presented a double bill of “Sorcerer” and “Cruising” to a sold-out house at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica last week since his appearance was part of the promotional tour for autobiography “The Friedkin Connection” in which his gregarious personality shines through. With previous stops across the country in New York and Chicago, Friedkin’s been trying humility, often trotting out the adjective “bulletproof” as a way of explaining why he followed up his breakthrough one-two punch of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” with the far dicier twofer the folks at the Aero were onhand to see. Yet in relative terms to other filmmakers, few loom larger than life in the way Friedkin does when he’s in front of a crowd.

As someone noted on my Twitter feed during his hour-long Q & A following “Sorcerer,” if Friedkin hadn’t gone into film, he’d have made a great talk show host, refusing to take a seat after moderator F.X. Feeney took his, instead determinedly pacing the stage with the strut of a standup such as Patton Oswalt, who was sitting in the back.

Encouraging the crowd to give as good as they were getting from him, he playfully taunted one aspiring filmmaker who proudly told the pro-digital Friedkin that he was shooting his first feature (“a dirty, dirty western”) on 16mm, to which Friedkin replied, “Don’t shoot on 16 unless you want it shown in a bar in Rio Lindo.” (When a subsequent voice from the crowd yelled “[Amazing] Spider-Man 2″ is shooting on 35,” Friedkin shot back, “I don’t give a flying fuck about Spider-Man 2,” making even the celluloid die-hards laugh.) 

There wasn’t as much talk about the actual making of “Sorcerer” as one might expect, perhaps because Friedkin’s saving them for when he takes a digitally restored version of the film on the road in the fall, admitting it pained him to watch the 35mm print with all its dirt and scratches. Or perhaps it’s because he’d like people to buy his book for the harrowing tales from the shoot in the Dominican Republic where he presided over the filming of gigantic big rigs traversing flimsy bric-a-brac bridges in the jungle. Still, it was a celebration of the “impossible” effort, with Friedkin insisting on bringing up one of the film’s cinematographers, John Stephens, and Mark Johnson, the producer of such films as “Rain Man” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” who was credited as a second assistant director on “Sorcerer,” though Friedkin called him a “jack-of-all-trades” on the set.

“I’m really lucky I started my career with this man because I never learned so much from somebody – a lot of it, I have to tell you was because I was scared shitless of him for the whole process because he was so demanding, I was always afraid I was going to be found wanting,” Johnson said upon taking the stage.

But it was the second half of the bill that provided the best anecdote of the night, thanks to a question from Shawn Casey O’Brien, the lead singer of The Cripples, who provided two tracks for the “Cruising” soundtrack and only had one in the final release. The other, a song called “Hypnotize,” was a casualty of the infamous 40 minutes Friedkin needed to cut from the film to receive an R-rated for the Al Pacino murder mystery set in the gay nightclub scene of New York. From there, all Friedkin needed was a word from Feeney about “Interior. Leather Bar,” James Franco’s attempt to recreate the excised 40 minutes, for the director to recreate a conversation with Franco.

“James Franco tried to get the rights to remake “Cruising” on two occasions,” Friedkin said. “He wanted to remake the whole film and of course, that’s not possible. But I actually heard from some people involved with it that he was shooting a film about the missing 40 minutes of ‘Cruising.’ About halfway through the shooting, he called me and he introduced himself. I had never met him and he said, “You know, ‘I’m trying to make a film about the missing 40 minutes of ‘Cruising.’’ I said, uh huh. And he said, “By the way, what were the missing 40 minutes?” [laughs] ‘I swear to God, he’d been shooting it! I said, ‘Well, it was just pure pornography that I shot because I could.’”

Friedkin then recounted how he eventually got the film past the ratings board, a tale involving the smooth operating producer Jerry Weintraub and Dr. Aaron Stern, the founder of the MPAA who had since retired and charged $1000 a day for his services, that is also in his autobiography. He knew that most of the material would be cut, even when he was shooting it. However, when Friedkin began putting together a DVD for “Cruising” in 2007, he conducted a search for the missing footage that proved fruitless, and afterwards, when he heard from someone claiming to know where the footage was, he decided against pursuing it.

“First of all, the guy was very freaked out about even telling this to me because that’s piracy,” Friedkin said, without divulging who this mystery person was. “And I assured him it would not be piracy if we did it. But how the hell do I know? So I did not pursue it. And it is just pornography, so it wasn’t going to add anything to the story.”

Friedkin, on the other hand, appears to have finally closed the book on this mystery.

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